TODAY -

Organic seed production - Issues and strategies
- Part 1 -

L Meghachandra Singh *



Introduction

Seed is the most important critical input in any crop based farming system; the success of organic production system too in dependent on the availability of quality seeds of proven organic varieties. Though the importance of organic seeds has started dawning in other parts of the globe, such seeds are available only in limited areas and crop varieties. In some self-pollinated crop varieties, own saved seeds from the organic crops could be adopted.

As chemical treated seeds are not desirable in organic system, either in-situ or ex-situ seed production chain needs to be developed in an organized way, so that, both the systems once started, should not fail at any stage. Organic seed production needs to have accurate demand. Organic seeds could be less yielding, more labour intensive and costlier than the conventional seeds. Both seeds (certified) and organic produce need to be subjected to process as well as product certification.

Organic certification may be carried out by the Organic Certification Agencies following seed certification norms. To develop organic seed production system, we need disease resistant varieties, besides using organic production packages. This needs identification/development of organic varieties, treatments of organic seed production packages, organic treatments and proper seed demand forecast. Because of higher value and low volume nature, organic seeds could become a good way of foreign exchange for the remote virgin North East areas.

Quality of the seed is well known to be a determinant for crop productivity. A good quality seed should be of high yielding variety, with high purity level, free from seed borne diseases and pests, and possess high germination and vigour. These quality factors could only be ensured through the process of production as well as testing the end product-the seeds. Seeds, in organic system, on the other hand too face many diverse problems and had been a limiting factor in expanding global organic crop cultivation.

Both the seeds (non organic) and organic produce are to be subjected to process certification rather than product certification. Lack of organic varieties, selection of right varieties, disease and pest problems, own saved seed of farmers' conventional varieties are the limiting factors.

In North East India, seed sector still remained at the infant stage and farmers are facing the problem of unavailability of quality seeds. Even after almost four decades of the commencement of Indian National Seeds Programme (1970s), only two states Assam and Tripura have functional seed certification systems in the region despite its rich plant bio-resources.

The Scenario

Seed certification under traditional system (conventional, rather non-existed in the North East hill States) ensures the planting value of the seeds whereas, organic certification ensures freedom of the produce from harmful residues and environmental safety. Organic seed certification under the present global requirement needs both seed certifying agencies and organic certification agencies, which is rather difficult.

Seed standards are yet to be set for organic seeds. Though there are common standards of germination, purity, true to type, freedom from seed borne disease and pest and absence of physical damage, chemical seed treatment is not allowed in the latter. Besides organic produces raised from the owned saved seeds/plants or collected wild commodities have no seed standards.

It is obligatory that, the certified seeds are completely free from the seed borne diseases and insects, which in the conventional certified seeds is, mostly, accomplished through post production seed treatments. Truthfully labelled (private companies') seeds could also be certified organic if processed through organic certification.

In India, seed certification under conventional agriculture is taken up by the state owned Seed Certification Agencies, which are non-existed in most of the northeastern states (except Assam and Tripura). Indian Plant Quarantine Acts to restrict movement of many planting materials from abroad without confirming the freedom status from seed borne disease which is possible through proper chemical seed treatments.

Though some treatments are carried out through physical or non-chemical means like heat and organic treatments, they need not be useful against all diseases and pests. Thus, selection rather than development of varieties resistant to the disease and insects prevailed under different agro ecological situations becomes the task ahead to get disease and chemical free organic seeds.

As a global scenario, based on the seed requirements, there are twodistinct groups of organic growers. The first category of farmers who mostly are smallgrowers, and they are interested in producing for local market with local varieties or conservation varieties, with seed production and exchange. They are more interested in seed saving and aimed at conserving existing varieties including rescue and development of varieties considered best suited to low input conditions.

They deal with issues of farmers' rights, self-reliance and seed security and wish to avoid the journey of conventional seed sector. The other group is large scale organic farmers who need to supply local supermarkets or competitive export markets and who have specific quality requirements that are best met by using the modern (hybrid) varieties of commercial seed companies.

Conventional seed companies who also produce organic seeds are the main suppliers of this seed. These companies continued investment in organic seed are risk if market conditions are not favourable for profitable business. Under the north east context, in particular and Indian conditions in general, the former case holds good as the local farmers are small and have been using traditional varieties and own seeds.

Issues

In many countries, use of conventional (rather modern/improved) varieties or land races has been predominant in organic agriculture. However, complaints are that, this led to retardation in development of organically suitable varieties even in the developed countries of America and Europe.

Besides, it is not clear whether the longevity of such wild/landrace varieties, could be able to compete for long with respect to other better qualities, like taste,flavour, etc. There could be demand till other better competitors come up, but it has potential threat of competition from other countries having strong research and development sectors (mostly private).

Still organic crop varieties, which have export potentials, are yet to be bred for the Indian conditions in general and for the region in particular. Lack of organic varieties, which are resistant to pests and diseases, and having consumers' acceptance (including export potentials in future) has been the main bottleneck in expanding the organic system in other areas (which would be true for our conditions too)

The next issue is whether the conventional varieties would do well under organic culture or should we go for only those varieties, which are organically adapted. It is more critical in food and vegetables, in which taste or other quality traits are more important and the modern conventional varieties suit well to only the composite package of practices where chemical pesticides are recommended.

Only a few of these varieties or hybrids might dowell under low input (including pesticides). On the other hand, most of the branded organic pesticides (botanicals) need repeated applications and are costlier as compared to the chemical ones.

Organic seeds, naturally, have to be costlier than the conventional seeds. Seed are to be produced with plant hygiene as no chemicalcontrol is allowed otherwise, seeds have to be produced only in those areas, which are free from the diseases. However, the shortage of organic seeds, still has been the main constraint in expanding the organic agriculture.

Another bottleneck for organic seed production is lack of proper demand forecasting. In many countries, organic farmers have been depending on either the conventional seeds, owned saved seeds or seeds produced inorganically by themselves or equivalent seeds (inorganically produced seeds without chemical treatment in case organic seeds of that variety are not available). In European Union countries, inorganic seeds without treatments were allowed with a derogation period of two years since 2000.

However, the shortage of organic seeds still remained as a main constraint in expanding the organic crops. In UK, about 250 different varieties of organic seeds are commercially available, out of these 98% are vegetable varieties and 1 % are cereal varieties. Of the major crops only 4% of the varieties, which are most commonly used by UK organic producers are currently available as organic seed.

The North Eastern hill region, though has a wide range of crop germplasms, has not received much of the commercial benefits of their utilization. At this age of ownership rights and global free trade, many landraces still are being cultivated here since time immemorial without any improvement. These might be resistant to many pest and diseases in their specific micro-/macro-climate conditions.

The question is whether these location specific varieties, would all be liked by the market, both local and outside. On the other hand, genetically modified (GM) varieties and hybrids using male sterilities are restricted in organic agriculture. Thus, the issue is should we invest in breeding organic varieties for the outside market while we have a very few non organic varieties for our own food demand or should we depend on the expensive imported organic seeds whose local adaptabilities are not certain?

Another issue is should our organic producers be required to use Organic Seed only ? In most of the other developed countries use of non-organic seeds had been allowed unless organic seeds were available. However, complaint is that, this led to further delay in developing organic seed production programmes.

From the First World Organic Seed Conference, Rome 2004, no consensus of what organic seed meant was derived at, rather it include all:
i) seed grown according to organic production methods,
ii) seed bred according to organically accepted methods,
iii) seed varieties adapted to prevailing organic agriculture conditions of low- external inputs (including both older varieties and newly developed seeds).

Whether organic seed was certified or not, did not seem to matter to organic farmers.


To be continued ....


* L Meghachandra Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on November 20 2022.



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